Higher education at colleges and universities is not preparing students for the future of work. It’s not even adequately preparing them for jobs that don’t exist anymore or jobs that will soon vanish, not to mention the jobs of the future that we can’t even picture yet. It’s even worse at preparing people to run their own businesses.
The institutions are too cumbersome — and the college culture to corrupt — to pivot towards the skills employers and entrepreneurs are desperately craving in today’s economy.
The good news is that a handful of simple soft and life-skills is all that’s necessary to correct this deficiency. Adding a complementary skillset to an average mastery of one’s field of study can turn a lacklustre employee into a stellar one, or a failing freelancer into a thriving entrepreneur. Universities need to adapt and start teaching this modern skillset, but there are alternative places to upskill too.
Before I explain the modern life skillset, let’s look at the extent of the problem that’s created this mess in the first place.
“I’ve never let my school interfere with my education.”
— Mark Twain
Education is failing hard
College wasn’t always about career training. In the 1800’s it was focused on broad liberal arts, including ancient languages, religion and philosophy. Around the turn of the century — following the industrial revolution — colleges shifted towards vocational training. Still today their biggest appeal and claim of value lies in their ability to prepare students for gainful employment and fulfilling careers. But for the past few decades, and even more so since the Millenial generation, they’ve been failing that primary objective.
Take a look at these sobering stats:
- In 2011, 1.5 million, or 53.6% of college grads under age 25 were out of work or underemployed. (McKinsey Consulting)
- Half of college graduates don’t feel their education improved their chances of finding a job or prepared them for the world of work (McKinsey Consulting)
- Almost 40% of employers say a lack of skills is the main reason for entry-level vacancies. (McKinsey Consulting)
- The average American undergrad college student takes on over $37K in debt, but those who attend private, speciality, or ivy league schools can owe much more. (WSJ)
To add to this, the job market is harder than ever and diminishing daily:
- 48% of employed U.S. college grads are in jobs that require less than a four-year degree. (McKinsey Consulting)
- Fewer employers are willing to train people on the job. Employer-sponsored training fell 42% between 1996 and 2008. (US Gov, Council of Economic Advisors)
- Only 27% of college grads were working in a job that matched their college major. (Liberty Street Economics)
- Six times as many graduates are working in retail or hospitality as had originally planned, because they can’t find work in what they studied. (McKinsey Consulting)
- 85% of the jobs that today’s students will do in 2030 don’t exist yet. (Institute for the Future)
Today’s students are paying more than ever for an education that’s not given them much return on investment. It’s not building the skills future employees need to succeed in a changing economic landscape. Part of the blame lies in lazy curriculums that are sluggish to adapt. But the biggest impact is a radical shift in career trends and future-proof skills.
The “job for life” is dead
The Boomer generation's American Dream was often based around a “job for life”. You studied to learn some trade or skill, found employment at the bottom of an organisation, and remained loyal to them as you worked your way up to the top. You might have stayed in the same industry doing a similar job for most of your life until you retired to live leisurely, supported by the government in return for your decades of devoted service to capitalism.
But careers are no longer that linear. Our youth stopped believing in that dream, and employers no longer offer it. Today’s average American worker changes jobs 12 times in their career, staying at each company for around 4 years, but sometimes much less. (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
The epidemic of job-hopping has made training employees to risky, which means less room for upward mobility inside an organisation. This lack of loyalty and stability from employers makes leaving for greener pastures more appealing — for more passion, stability, flexibility, mobility, or money — and the vicious cycle keeps feeding itself, eroding the American Dream at both ends.
Young adults are no longer satisfied with a stable job — they want meaning and purpose. Many of them realise by the time they graduate that they’re no longer interested in the career for which they studied. But even if a stable job would suffice, very few of them exist. Robots and artificial intelligence will continue to devour our less creative tasks, putting more skills at jeopardy of extinction.
This is causing more of us to turn to freelancing and entrepreneurship — to build a career we can control — which can be more stable than traditional employment. But our educational institutions are equally inept at preparing us for that, outside of those who choose a business major.
In the future, more people will be forced to make larger career changes and learn new skills more frequently. Mobility will shift from upward to sideways. How is education meant to keep up?
“The solution to training people for the jobs of the future? Don’t, at least to a point…We can’t possibly prepare people for all of the jobs that are ahead,” says Brandon Busteed, the president of Kaplan University Partners, which supports U.S. colleges and universities adapt to the changing world. “What we need to start doing is creating the scaffolding to create an ecosystem where people are constantly being educated and retooled to stay relevant in their jobs.”
Part of this is upskilling to cutting-edge skills, helping people migrate away from displaced jobs or stay in touch with evolving tech. But a larger part might be teaching universal skills that will retain value across any industry in a post-AI world. It just so happens that these soft skills are what today’s employers are finding most lacking in graduates.
“A super hardcore work ethic, talent for building things, common sense & trustworthiness are required, the rest we can train.” — Elon Musk
The modern life skillset
The modern skillset is comprised of two complementary halves: professional skills and life skills. It’s the yin and yang that most current job seekers and career builders are lacking. These “soft” skills don’t replace traditional training — you still need to have an area of specialisation and expertise. But we know that T-shaped employees make the most valuable team members and creative workers. It takes both depth and breadth to stand out.
If you’re satisfied with the vocational skills you’ve learned in school, but can recognise that it’s everything else around the fringes which are lacking, here’s a list of the new-school skills we need to shift focus to:
Professional soft skills
- Empathy, creativity, problem-solving — Machines can’t emulate this as well as they can with repetitive tasks. These skills will grow more and more valuable.
- Critical thinking (judgment, decision-making, and analysis and evaluation of systems)— Helps us navigate this post-truth world where very little can be taken at face value.
- Unlearning bias and privilege. Learning acceptance and compassion instead — Necessary to undo the imbalances of unfettered capitalism by designing fairer systems.
- Integrity, reliability, work ethic —Employers hate nothing more than a lack of these. And if you want to run your own business, you need them twice as much.
- Communication, storytelling, writing, speaking, persuasion. People skills — There is no kind of business or team that can operate without them. Learn to sell people on the value of your ideas or they won’t be heard.
- Management, leadership, teamwork, collaboration— Hit a glass ceiling on your upward movement? This is probably why. Just because you’re good at what you do doesn't make you good at leading others to do it.
- Time management, scheduling, estimating — Valuable workers are autonomous operators. Get your day together without hand-holding.
- Running a business, contracts, proposals, client acquisition. etc. — Give everyone, not just business majors, the skills to design their own career by building a business.
I can say from personal experience that my freelance career success has been accelerated due to a strong foundation of professional soft skills. This is what people remember you for, even more than how well you perform your craft or master your area of expertise.
“Portfolio careers will no longer be the exception. Digital skills and entrepreneurial nous will be necessary for success.” — Christina Slade
Life “adulting” skills
- Money, budgeting, credit cards, saving, investing — You’ll never get out from under those mountains of student loan debt without a solid financial plan.
- Resilience, stress-management, mental health — Life is full of failures. Learn to meditate. Learn to decompress, how to take breaks, what refreshes you the most, where to go for help.
- Friendships and building your lifelong tribe — If you can’t make and keep friends, you’ll have little support later.
- Romantic and business relationships — Dating sucks. But professional relationships are equally important. You can’t get anywhere without good connection, personal and professional.
- Marriage, family, raising kids — Huge life-changing moments that most people are underprepared for, or simply scared shitless of.
- Home-ownership, maintenance, cars, etc. — How to make smart purchases, and maintain them over time. These are too expensive to get wrong.
- Physical health, diet, exercise, cooking — Are you 20 or 30 and still have no clue what a healthy lifestyle looks like? You only get one body so best learn how to take care of it.
- Professional/social etiquette and manners — Friendships, relationships, and half the professional skills will fail if you don’t have a foundation in personal etiquette.
- Goal setting, routine, habits, psychology — This is how you build reliability and set yourself up for success at anything.
Now imagine if every graduate entered the workforce with most of these skills. You’d be a fool to bet against them having a successful career.
Is that too much to ask? Is this way beyond the scope of what modern education should be?
Until this becomes the new norm, there’s a massive opportunity for those who develop their soft-skills to dominate an employment market full of ill-prepared wannabes.
“Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living; the other helps you make a life.” — Sandara Carey
Where to upskill for the future
Colleges will adapt or they’ll get disrupted and replaced. University education needs to ensure kids discover who they are and want to be so that they don’t waste their 20’s and 30’s drifting around still figuring it out.
That means encouraging people’s uniqueness rather than enforcing conformity and regurgitating memorised facts. It means prioritising true wealth building (health, happiness, etc.) over-training for high-paying jobs. It means developing deep friendships and relationships that will become your supportive tribe for life. And gaining the skills that make you good at anything you choose to do, not just what you spent a few years of your early life training for.
Education can’t be linear
The tradition of a 4-year linear education is dying. Careers are never linear. And education can’t just happen in the early years of young adulthood. It needs to happen constantly into old age because every job is changing too rapidly to allow for complacency.
It also needs to start sooner, because those of us who don’t go past high school need the same skills to succeed. Large employers like Google and Apple are decreasing emphasis on educational degrees in favour of employees with work experience and collaboration skills. It might be worth considering if learning professional skills through real work experience gives you better employment prospects than four years of study would.
Colleges have tried to adapt through online courses and more flexible study options, and those endeavours are a great first step. But they are hacks on to an underlying system that’s growing obsolete. At some point, deeper changes need to take hold.
That change will be from “just-in-case” to “just-in-time” education. Granular, focused education when it’s needed, not just when it’s convenient or profitable for educators. Flexible, on-demand, adaptable, on-time. Less cost, less time, less risk.
Maybe that means two years of education, then a few years of work experience to figure out your weaknesses, and then more spurts of education to build breadth and upskill for lateral shifts. Education isn’t over when you graduate. All successful creatives and business people know that constant learning is required to stay relevant.
Stanford’s d.school is investigating something they call “Open Loop University” where students would have 6 years worth of study to be used as they please over a lifetime. That’s a great step towards the flexible education we need.
Education can’t keep teaching the same old vocational skills
It’s not just the structure of education that needs to change, it’s also what they are teaching. The obsession with high-school simply prepping you for college and college prepping you for the job market means high-achieving students chase good grades at the expense of learning life skills. “Folks are really being pressured for college prep, they’re just not getting as much time and exposure at home hanging out with their family, learning how to unclog the kitchen sink, or hang a picture on the wall,” says Rachel Weinstein, professional therapist and co-founded the Adulting School (now Adulting Collective).
I find it no surprise that “Adulting” courses like the ones offered by UC Berkely are so popular they can’t keep up with demand. Students are clever enough to know what they’re missing and flock like seagulls to french fries when they get a taste of what they need.
And for those that don’t have access to learning modern life skills, there are independent adulting classes springing up to fill the void. The Adulting Collective in Portland Maine has hosted in-person events teaching young adults skills from bike safety to hydration, budgeting to nutrition. The Brooklyn Brainery have classes in how to run a good meeting and what Seinfeld teaches us about love. The Society of Grownups offers online courses in budgeting and managing debt.
“Adulting is something nobody prepares you for, but you know it when it happens. It’s the unglorified part of being on your own.”
That’s according Rebekah Fitzsimmons, assistant director of the writing and communication program at Georgia Tech who taught a class on adulting. She thinks adulting is simply what it means to be a self-sufficient human being.
If your university doesn’t offer anything resembling adulting classes or universal professional skills, find a mentor who will. I despise the unpaid internship tradition, but what it does well is dropping you into a low-risk environment where you’re forced to pick up these skills quickly. There’s nothing like learning on the job from someone who’s been there and done that. Experience, after all, is the best teacher we have.
The point of teaching professional or personal soft-skills is to accelerate learning life lessons that could take a lifetime of trial and error. Older generations could survive having made a few big errors. Today’s crop of kids are entering a world that’s far less forgiving. One or two big fuck-ups could hinder them for decades. We need to impart the skills to make them far savvier than we were at their age. The skills to build a life not just find a job.